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Bar Mitzvah etiquette for the non-Jew

Q: Hi! I am a Christian lady whose sister married a wonderful Jewish man about 18 years ago. They have 3 children and are raising them in the Jewish faith. My family is very excited that their son's Bar Mitzvah is coming up, but I am concerned about the proper etiquette for a non-Jew at the ceremony. I know very little about the meaning and purpose of a Bar Mitzvah. I would like to know what may take place, what is expected of the family, and maybe what an appropriate gift would be. My brother and his family live in another state and although we have a wonderful relationship, I would hate to "bother" them with my questions! I would appreciate any advice or tips!

A: I recommend a book called "Putting God on the Guest List, Reclaiming the Spiritual Nature of your Bar / Bat Mitzvah" by Rabbi Jeff Salkin (Jewish Lights Publishing) which has a chapter specifically for nonJews.

In general, Bar/Bat Mitzvah means a young Jewish boy/girl, age 13, is considered by Judaism to be of age to be included as an adult member of the Jewish people, with personal responsibility for following the Commandments (In Hebrew, called Mitzvot, plural of Mitzvah, as in Bar Mitzvah). "Bar/Bat Mitzvah" means "Son/daughter of the commandments."

If the service you are attending takes place, as most Bar/Bat Mitzvah services do, on a Saturday morning, the synagogue service is the Jewish Sabbath morning service. In Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues the service runs on average 90 minutes to 2 hours; in Conservative synagogues it can run to three hours.

The Bar or Bat Mitzvah student usually signifies his/her coming into the adult community by participating as a leader and reader in the service, but the degree of participation varies from synagogue to synagogue.

The main event of the service, which occurs about midway into the service itself, is the taking out of the Torah scroll, which is a handwritten parchment containing the 5 Books of Moses (= the first 5 books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). After the scroll is taken out of the Holy Ark, a section is read containing that Sabbath's lectionary reading. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah student usually reads the final section of the Torah reading, and often reads more than that.

After the Torah reading is done, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student usually reads an additional biblical passage called a Haftara, usually taken from the writings of one of the prophets. This reading is not from a scroll but from a book or booklet.

In many synagogues, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student also teaches a lesson in English about his/her scriptural readings, called a D'var Torah (also known as "The Bar/Bat Mitzvah speech" to the children!)

Depending on the synagogue, the student may also lead the congregation in the reading or chanting of some parts of the service.

The expectations of the family are usually explained by the rabbi to the student and his/her family. The extended family are invited to the service, where it is customary for men (and in Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues, women often as well) (Jewish or not) to wear a headcovering ( called a keepa or yamaka). In some Conservative synagogues, women wear a lace headcovering instead. Usually, a synagogue will have a stand or basket of these items available at the entrance to the sanctuary if they are required.

If the synagogue has the tradition of wearing the talit, or prayershawl with ritual fringes, nonJews do not wear the talit (prayershawl). The reason is that the headcovering is a customary Jewish sign of respect before God, but the talit is a specific commandment of the Torah for Jews.

As far as gifts, there are several traditions. One is to make a donation to a Jewish charitable organization in the name of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student. This is a traditional Jewish gesture of "tzedaka", a word which means "charitable support of those in need", and derives from the Hebrew word "tzedek", which means "justice".

It is also customary to give a Jewish book, or a gift certificate to a Jewish bookstore. You can order gift certificates from the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia at 2155645925, which will send the student a catalogue from which s/he selects their own choices.

I hope this is helpful, and I wish your family "Mazel Tov" (which means "congratulations and good luck") on this happy occasion.



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